Today, most of us think of cooties as those imaginary germs kids are afraid they’ll get if they go anywhere near a member of the opposite sex. But during World War I, cooties were not imaginary at all. They were a very real infestation that affected trench soldiers on both sides of the conflict.
Early descriptions of the malady appeared in three best-selling books written by Americans serving in the British and French military before the U.S. entered the war. Most historians believe that Albert Depew of Pennsylvania, who fought with the French Foreign Legion, was the first to introduce the term into the U.S. lexicon in his book Gunner Depew.
Depew explained that cooties included “bugs, lice, rats, and every kind of pest that has been invented.” He related that trench soldiers paired up like monkeys hunting and picking over one another, becoming “trench partners” and thus, “pals for life.”
Another early description was in Utah native Arthur Guy Empey’s book Over the Top, in which he described his experiences fighting with the British army. Empey had his first experience with cooties shortly after his 1915 deployment in France. His first billet was a large barn, where he laid down to take a nap. His bed was a pile of straw, and his pillow was his helmet. A couple of hours into his nap, he wrote, “I awoke with a prickling sensation all over me.”
He went on, “There is no way to get rid of them … no matter how often you bathe … or how many times you change your underwear. … The billets are infested with them.”
Yet another reference to cooties was in Pat O’Brien’s best-seller, Outwitting the Hun. O’Brien, a pilot from Illinois, volunteered to fly with Britain’s Royal Flying Corps in 1916.
O’Brien, whose daring escape from the Germans made him internationally famous, first experienced cooties when he was a prisoner of war. He was taken from his cell in a German POW staging area and “given a pickle bath in some sort of solution.” Meanwhile, his “clothes, bedclothes, and whatever else had been in my cell were being put through another fumigating process,” he wrote. “From that time on, I had no further trouble with ‘cooties.’”
Empey asserted: “The only way to get rid of cooties … is to be wounded and sent to a hospital where there are no ‘cooties.’” Empey also described a cootie-fighting device made by trench soldiers that they kept in their right legging for instant use: an 18-inch-long “scratcher,” which was a piece of hardwood “the thickness of an ordinary meat skewer” polished with sand “so that it is smooth and will not splinter.”
Lt. Glen Moon of Minot, N.D., wrote a letter to his sister 10 days after the armistice of Nov. 11, 1918, in which he described his utter relief from the cooties. He and his company enjoyed a hot bath in a captured German-built bathhouse, he wrote, where the “cooties lost at least a Division or two in that battle. Oh, no, I didn’t have the whole 100,000, but I assure you I had my share.”
Pvt. A.B. Dobbs of Virginia said there was a positive side to cooties: They were “the soldier’s best friend,” he told a reporter for The Oklahoma City Times in September 1918. “They keep the soldier busy and occupied all the time. When he is out on guard duty, there is no danger of him dropping off to sleep on a quiet night.”
In April 1919, John Linden of Hawaii related his experiences to a reporter for The Garden Island newspaper: “When you went back from the trenches … you were disinfected … stripped to the skin, given a hot steam bath for half an hour, and a complete fresh and clean outfit was issued to you. And before night you would have the cooties again!”
He underwent the same process on his return from France to England and halfway across the English Channel, he said. “There were the cooties right with you very much the same as ever.” And on landing in England, they were similarly deloused “with the same result—the cootie was with you when you got home.”
In an article he wrote for The Topeka [Kan.] Daily State Journal, “San” Jarrell remembered how “the dainty dears are always eating, nibbling on a piece of shin, or munching contentedly in the region of the left ear.”
Jarrell went on to explain that cooties visited every part of the human body, and “it is estimated the average per man in the 130th Field Artillery was 100,” speculating there were “perhaps 160,000 … about the persons of these artillerymen” in the regiment.
According to Depew, even though soldiers were given bottles of a “strong liquid” to soak their clothes in, the liquid was ineffectual. Cooties “were certainly game little devils, and came right back at us,” he wrote.
Their breeding ground, the trenches, were places where men stood knee-deep in mud, sweat and blood. Soldiers often would awaken and find “a rat almost as big as a cat gnawing your boot … feeling the wet fur of a rat under [the] chin.”
Depew was wounded and lost sight in an eye in the Dardanelles campaign. Discharged, he booked passage on a ship from France to New York. Midway across the Atlantic, his ship was torpedoed by a U-boat, and he became a POW. He related that each barracks was given one bucket of water a day. The prisoners boiled it to wash their clothes “to get rid of the cooties.” This lasted for about “two hours, then they would come back.”
Trench cooties “were regular mollycoddles” compared to those in the POW camps, Depew recalled. In the barracks, the men often sat with their shirts off, scratching and searching for cooties—a practice they called “reading the news.” He wrote, “We swarmed with lice … we even had them on our shoestrings and in our eyebrows.”
Depew got so tired of reading the news that he soaked his shirt in water one night and hung it out on the prison fence to dry. The following morning, “it was frozen stiff and hard as a rock”—success at last. He soon discovered, however, that cooties couldn’t be frozen, “and how they did go for me! … I think they were hungrier than ever … and the fresh air gave them an extra appetite.”
The American Fund for French Wounded planned on employing hundreds in New York garment factories to produce a so-called cootie shirt. It was an undershirt made from cheesecloth and dipped in “creosote and other germicidal solutions,” according to the Harrisburg [Pa.] Telegraph. The idea was “the vermin cling to the cotton fabric and are destroyed when the garment is dipped in boiling water.”
Little came of the idea, however, suggesting that despite the touted “great popularity among the men in the trenches,” the shirts didn’t actually work. It was probably for the best, because creosote is a carcinogen.
Jimmy Murrin, with the headquarters company of the 12th Infantry, immortalized the vermin in verse in a poem that was published in Stars and Stripes. It included these verses:
We are sleeping in a hen-house.
And, say, the sleeping’s fine!
That is, we sleep when all is quiet
And shells aren’t overhead;
Be it known, we’ll nap or slumber
When the cooties aren’t in bed.
For no matter where you travel,
And no matter where you roam;
The doughboy’s got a partner—
There’s cooties in his home.
After the Great War, the word “cooties” took on a new life. Charles Bowby Co. introduced a bug-building game called Cootie. In 1937, Rork’s Co. released The New Game of Cootie. It was followed in 1939 by Transogram’s version, which involved assembling a 3-D wooden bug in a tray.
In 1948, postman William Schaper developed a tabletop game called The Game of Cootie. It featured a bug-like figure made of plastic parts. The various body parts are acquired with rolls of the dice; the first player to acquire all the parts wins the game. The game sold millions by 1952 and was eventually acquired by Hasbro subsidiary Milton Bradley. In 2003, Cootie was named by the Toy Industry Association as one of the 100 most memorable games of the 20th century.
In addition to board games, “cooties” are fixed in American child lore. Of course, both are a far cry from the real cooties that plagued American soldiers mired in the trenches and POW camps of World War I.